Graeco-Roman Antiquities & the New Testament
Thoughts on Idols
From time to time scholars put forth ideas or make suggestions that simply don’t seem plausible in light of the hard evidence of ancient historical facts. To borrow an adage from sports and apply it to scholarship, “from time to time even a pro will hit a foul ball.” One of the areas in which some biblical scholars have been guilty of hitting a foul ball or two is their views about ancient idolatry.
On occasion scholars of both the Old Testament and New Testament explain that ancient pagan peoples did not “really” believe that those statues or monuments that the Jews and we Christians call idols were “really” gods. Even before we look at ancient historical evidence coming from the pagans themselves, it ought to be pointed out that the onus probandi lies with modern scholarship anytime it questions a view that is so repeatedly made in the ancient sources.
Even a brief look at Jewish and Christian sources show how widespread was the estimation that these physical objects were considered to be gods and goddesses. Jewish and Christian sources such as Exod. 32:4-8; Isa. 44:9-20; Psa. 115:2-8; 135:15-18 and Acts 19:26 seem pretty clear on this point. I am certainly not intending to overlook the idea that anything and any desire can become a person’s god. After all, Paul himself seems to equate greed and idolatry (Col. 3:5; cf. Ezek. 14:4, 7). Martin Luther saw this non-material use of the idea of personal gods and idols when he wrote in his Large Catechism (1529), “I say, [that] upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.”
So, why would some scholars set themselves against the widespread testimony of antiquity? In part it is because they themselves in their own theology/philosophy have so little experience with worshipping material objects; this is particularly true of Protestant scholars. Another reason might be that they know of the minority view of religious philosophers, both past and present, who played down the role of material objects in comprehending the divine.
When we look beyond the personal beliefs of modern scholars or the statistically rare religious philosopher, past or present, the ancient evidence seems to indicate that statues and other objects were considered divine and gods. I recently was reminded of this when looking at a Hellenistic document that mentioned a pagan priest carrying a portable statue of his god. The Greek term used for this object he carried was “theos”
(the identical Greek term used by pagans, Christians, and Greek speaking Jews for “god”). Of course this pagan priest did not believe that the god he worshipped was totally contained by the portable idol he carried, any more than Jews believed that YHWH was totally contained within the Jerusalem Temple. However, Jews associated YHWH close enough with the temple, that when the physical temple was destroyed they clearly believed that YHWY’s presence was no longer there (e.g., Ezekiel).
I am not suggesting that all Jewish and pagan notions of divine presence are identical, but it is important to realize that just as the Jews closely associated divine presence with a physical object like the ark of the covenant, so pagans, in their polytheism, associated divine status with objects without circumscribing the deity’s presence to the object. This explains the fact that we have stories of pagans trying to control the behavior of a deity by actions they performed on the idol itself, whether feeding it or chaining it or transporting it.
At first blush it might appear to some that this is not a significant issue. Without clarity on this issue, however, it becomes difficult to understand historical actions by pagans, Jews, and later Christians, for they all associated defeat of another’s religion with the destruction of divine objects associated with an opponent’s faith. After Christianity gained control over the government of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, it was not long before the formerly persecuted became the persecutors. A Taliban-like mentality developed among many Christian clerics as they systematically and forcibly destroyed the idols and statues of paganism.